Reality Check »

Reviews of fast food burgers and a look at how the real life version compares to the advertised beauty shot.

Reality Check: Steak 'n Shake's Jalapeño Crunch Steakburger

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[Photographs: Todd Brock, except as noted]

With much of the country broiling away in record-temps this summer, Steak 'n Shake has decided it's the perfect time to roll out their Jalapeño Crunch Steakburger. No sweat, I say. I'm always down for some of the spicy stuff, and for my burger dollar, Steak 'n Shake lives on the higher end of the fast-food/fast-casual spectrum. So on a recent afternoon where the mercury hovered just under 100, I pulled up a stool with a great view of the flattop and told my server to bring the heat.

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Open kitchens and on-display cookery are all the rage today, but when Gus Belt started Steak 'n Shake in 1934, he took it to a whole new level. According to official company propaganda, he would wheel steak-filled barrels into the store and grind the meat into burgers right in front of customers. Their "In Sight It Must Be Right" philosophy continues today with a griddle right up front... although the grinding these days is done behind the scenes.

Watching a good short order cook has always been my favorite type of dinner theater; on this day, I watched the griddlemaster (actually, a griddlemistress) pluck two soft beef pucks out of the cooler with a long-tined fork, plop them on the flattop, and flatten them out with a spatula, the rhythmic clinking cadence and fluid choreography of grease-splattered utensils never stopping as the computer screen above scrolled orders and ticked off cooking times relentlessly. 8:26 after my order was inputted, the plated meal was on its way to a runner.

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[Above photo: Steak 'n Shake]

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What I got was not unattractive by any means, but not quite a match with the PR shot, either. That striking red salsa from the menu pic wasn't really visible, nor were the sliced jalapeños. The predominant color was that generic fast-food shade of orange, in this case provided by chipotle mayo, with flecks of pepperjack white peeking through. Again, not bad...but if I hadn't known what I ordered, I certainly wouldn't be able to identify this as the Jalapeño Crunch Steakburger ($4.99 with fries) on sight alone.

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Under the bun, things looked a tad skimpy. Four jalapeño slices is enough to add kick, but it sure doesn't guarantee it in every bite. I had to look hard to pick out the salsa, which had sort of blended with the chipotle mayo and even seemed to suck up the "crispy fried onions" that theoretically supply this burger with the "Crunch" in its name.

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A cross-section autopsy shot only muddied the works. Salsa, mayo, jalapeños, and fried onions had melded together into one generic amalgamation of stuff, with no one ingredient all that discernible from the others. And that's exactly how it tasted. There was some peppery heat in there, and more crunch than I would have predicted (from both the fried onion and the jalapeño slices), but nothing that really fired up my taste buds as being something special. It was a warm, gushy, meaty, cheesy, bready mouthful with a slight crunch and some residual spice.

Thankfully, there was enough of what I already love about Steak 'n Shake to save this lunch run: those golden matchstick fries, a miniature crock of baked beans, a shot of vanilla in my Coke, a milkshake for the road. Steak 'n Shake's double patties were their usual selves as well; if you're a fan of SNS's "steakburgers," there's nothing really wrong with this seasonal LTO, but there's nothing really right with it, either. Not worth making a special trip or deviating from your usual order.

About the author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.

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